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Mission Statement 

The purpose of FLAPS-2-APPROACH is two-fold:  To document the construction of a Boeing 737 flight simulator, and to act as a platform to share aviation-related articles pertaining to the Boeing 737; thereby, providing a source of inspiration and reference to like-minded individuals.

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Sunday
Dec222013

B737 Throttle Quadrant - Automated Thrust Lever Movement

In this final post dealing with the conversion of the throttle quadrant, we will discuss the automation and movement of the throttle thrust levers and look at some of the teething problems encountered during the throttle conversion.  We will also briefly discuss the use of potentiometers.  Part of this post will be repetitive as I briefly discussed automation in an earlier post.

LEFT:  The Auto Throttle arming switch is a solenoid operated switch clearly identified on the main Instrument Panel (MCP).  The switch is linked to the IAS/MACH speed window (adjacent) and to two A/T disconnect buttons located either side of the throttle lever handles.

Avoiding Confusion - Automation

To avoid confusion, automation refers only to the movement of the two throttle thrust levers in relation to the %N1 output.  These N1 limits and targets are provided by the Flight Management Computer (FMC) and normally are used by the Autopilot Flight Director System (AFDS) and the Auto Throttle (A/T) to maintain airspeed and/or thrust setting.  

Automation and Movement - Interface Cards

Essentially, automation is the use of CMD A or CMD B (autopilot) to control the %N1 outputs from the Auto Throttle (logic), and motorization is the moving of the throttle levers in unison with %N1 output.  A number of interface cards are used to acheive this seemlessly.

Alpha Quadrant Cards (2):  Each  motor controller cards has the automation logic programmed directly to the card.  One card controls Auto Pilot CMD A while the other card controls CMD B.

Phidget Advanced Servo Card (2):  This card acts as an interface and bridge between the Alpha Quadrant cards and FSX. 

The card does not provide movement for the throttle thrust levers; this is controlled by a Phidget Motor Controller card.

Leo Bodnar BUO 836 A Joystick Controller Card:  This card will register in Windows the movement of levers, buttons and switches on the TQ.  Calibration of this card is done first in Windows then in Flight Simulator (FSX), FSUPIC or the avionics suite used; for example, ProSim737.

The interface cards are mounted forward of the MIP within the Interface Master Module (IMM) and are connected to the throttle unit by custom VGA cables and to the computer by a single USB cable.

Main Controller Cards

The controller card I have used is not a Phidget card but a specialist card often used in robotics (Alpha Quadrant card).  The software to program the card has been independently developed by a software engineer and does not utilize Phidgets.

The technology used in the controller card is very similar to that utilized by NASA to control their robotic landers used in the space industry.  The technology is also used to control robots used in the car industry and in other mass production streams.  One of the benefits of the card is that it utilizes a software chip (firmware) that can be easily upgraded ore replaced.  

The Alpha Quadrant cards provide the logic from which the automation of the throttle unit operates.  The cards act a "bridge" between the card and the avionics suite - "call it a language transfer if you will."

Being able to program each card allows replication of real aircraft logic and systems.  Whenever possible, these systems and their logic have been faithfully reproduced.

CMD A/B Autopilot - Two Independent Systems

Most throttle units only use one motor controller card which controls either CMD A or CMD B; whichever auto pilot you select is controlled by the same card.  

In the real aircraft to provide for redundancy, each auto pilot system is separate.  This redundancy has been duplicated by using two Alpha Quadrant controller cards, rather than a single card.  Each controller card has been independently programmed and wired to operate on a separate system.  Therefore, although only one CMD is operational at any one time, a completely separate second system is available if CMD A or B is selected on the MCP.

Synchronized or Independent Lever Motorization

Synchronization refers to whether the two throttle thrust levers, based upon separate engine %N1 outputs, move in unison with each other (together) or move independently.

In the real aircraft, on earlier airframes (B707, B727 & some B737 classics), the levers were synchronized; however, the NG has a computer-operated fuel control system which can minutely adjust the %N1 of each engine.  This advanced fuel management can be observed in a real aircraft whereby each throttle lever creeps forward or aft independent of the other lever.

Programming flight simulator to read separate %N1 outputs for each engine and then extrapolating the data to allow two motors to move the throttle levers independently is possible; however, the outputs are often inaccurate (for varying reasons).  This inaccuracy can often be observed on reproduction throttle units that exhibit a gap between lever one and lever two when automating %N1 outputs.  

It was decided to maintain the older system and have both levers synchronized.  Although this is not replicating the NG system, it does make calibration easier.  If in the future incremental thrust lever movement is required, then it’s a matter of adding another 12 Volt motor to the front of the throttle bulkhead to power the second thrust lever.  

Be aware that although both thrust levers are synchronized, the throttle handles may still show a slight difference in position in relation to each other.  This is caused by the varying tension that needs to be maintained on the fan belt connecting the 12 Volt motor to the mechanical system beneath the thrust levers.

LEFT:  Auto Throttle activation will advance both thrust levers in unison to a defined %N1 output.

Another aspect to note is that the position of the thrust levers during automation is arbitrary and is a visual representation of the %N1 output; it may or may not reflect the exact position on the throttle arc that the thrust lever would be placed if moved manually (by hand with Auto Throttle turned off).  

Although the TQ is automated, manual override (moving the thrust levers by hand) is possible at any time as long as the override is within the constraints of the real aircraft logic and that provided by the flight avionics (ProSim737).  

Power Requirements and Mechanics

To provide the power to move the throttle thrust levers, a 12 Volt motor previously used to power electric automobile windows, is mounted forward of the throttle bulkhead (see image at bottom of post).  Connected to the motor's pulley is a fan belt that connects to the main pulley located beneath the thrust levers.  To enable the thrust levers to move in unison, a slip clutch, which is part of the main pulley assembly, is used.  

ProSim737 Limitations - TO/GA and Auto Throttle Override

Unfortunately, concerning automation the ProSim737 is deficient in two areas: TO/GA and A/T Override (see postscript below).

LEFT:  Captain-side TO/GA button is clearly seen below lever handles.  The button at the end of the handle is the Auto Throttle disconnect button.

(A)  TO/GA

In the real aircraft, the flight crew advances the thrust levers to power 40%N1 (or to whatever the airline policy dictates), allows the engines to spool, then pushes the TO/GA button (s).  Pressing TO/GA causes the throttle to go on-line and to be controlled by the AFDS logic.  The throttle levers then advance automatically to whatever %N1 the logic deems appropriate based on takeoff calculations.

If you're are using ProSim737, this will NOT occur.  Rather, you will observe the thrust levers retard before they advance (assuming you have moved the thrust levers to %40 N1).  The reason for this is nothing to do with how the throttle is calibrated, FSUPIC or anything else.  ProSim737 software controls the %N1 outputs for the automation of the thrust levers and the developer of the software has not fine-tuned the calibration in the software to take into account real-world avionics logic.  This thread located on the ProSim737 forum provides additional information. 

I have not tested Sim Avionics, but have been told this issue is not reflected in their avionics suite.

There are two workarounds:  Engage TO/GA from idle (hardly realistic) or push the thrust levers to around 80% N1, allow the engines to spool, then push TO/GA.  Anything less that around 80% N1 will cause the thrust levers to retard before advancing.

POST SCRIPT JANUARY 28 2014

The latest version of ProSim (V-133) has provided improvement to the above issue.  Throttles can now be advanced to ~60% N1 and TOGA engaged without the throttle levers retarding.  This is possible ONLY if you calibrate the throttle levers within ProSim and allow ProSim to control the throttle output logic.  if you calibrate within FSUPIC then the same issue will apply.

According to ProSim developers, this issue is probably related to the calibration of the ProSim servo output. When you press TO/GA, the current N1 is taken and calculated back to a throttle percentage. This throttle percentage, when combined with the servo calibration data from ProSim results in a servo output. The servo calibration at the moment only has 2 calibration points, which are 0 and 100%. This results in a linear behavior between the two points, while depending on the construction of the throttle, the relationship might be non-linear. This would require a multi point calibration which is hard to do at the moment, because a throttle does not have exact readouts of the current position, so it will be hard to calibrate a 50% point.

This may need improvement in the code to auto calibrate the throttle system.

It's hoped that fuutre relase of ProSim will rectify this issue.

(B) Auto Throttle Manual Override

In the real aircraft, manual override is available to a flight crew and the thrust levers can be retarded with the Auto Throttle engaged.  When the flight crew release pressure on the thrust levers the Auto Throttle will take control again and return the thrust levers to the appropriate position on the throttle arc dependent upon the speed indicated in the speed window of the MCP.

ProSim737 will not temporarily disconnect (manual override) the Auto Throttle.  

At the time of writing, there is no workaround to solve this.

Potentiometers - Two Types; Which is Best

There are two types of potentiometers.  The first type, (I will call them standard potentiometers) are inexpensive, often have a +- percentage variance, are compact, have a minimal throw depending upon the size of the device and are not contaminate free.  

The last point is worth mentioning as it is wrongly assumed that a potentiometer will remain correctly calibrated for the life of the unit.  General wear and tear, dust and other debris will accumulate on the potentiometer; any of which may cause calibration and accuracy problems.  Keeping the potentiometers free of dust is important.

The second type of potentiometer is called a string potentiometer (strings).  Contrary to the standard type, strings are very accurate, are in a sealed unit presenting zero contamination, are manufactured to exacting standards, are larger in size and are expensive.

The difference in size between the two potentiometer types is often the reason for using the smaller standard type.  The strings are very long requiring quite a bit of real estate either forward of the throttle bulkhead or within the center pedestal.  In contrast, the standard potentiometers are quite compact; finding a position to install them is not problematic.

Calibration of Potentiometers

The main method of calibrating the position of the thrust levers is by calibrating the potentiometer in Windows, then in FSX followed by fine-tuning in FSUPIC (if needed).  

Standard potentiometers are used in the simulator; therefore, at some stage cleaning or replacement of a potentiometer maybe necessary.   The 737 throttle quadrant is not cavernous and only certain sized potentiometers will fit into the unit; this combined with other parts and wiring means that the potentiometers are often inaccessible without removing other components.  

To allow speedier access to the potentiometers, a Quick Assess Mounting Plate was designed.

Quick Access Mounting Plate (QAMP)

The potentiometers are mounted directly onto a custom-made aluminum plate that is attached to the inside of the throttle unit by solid thumb screws.   To access the plate, the side inspection cover of the throttle is removed (a few screws) followed by turning the thumb screws on the access plate.  This releases the plate.

LEFT:  QAMP secured to base of throttle unit.  Thumb screws are visible on each corner of the plate.  A possible add on modification to reduce the risk of dust contamination to the potentiometers is a plastic cover that fits over the plate (a lunch box).

A similar plate has been designed and constructed for use with the stand-by potentiometer that controls the flaps.  A more detailed picture of the QAMP can be seen here in an earlier post.

Below is a video showing the movement of the thrust levers with the Auto Throttle (A/T) engaged.  The movement of the thrust levers is in real time according to flight parameters during the test flight and has not been instigated by overriding the servo. 

Teething Issues with the Throttle Conversion

It was envisaged that more problems would have surfaced than have occurred.  The major issues are outlined below:

(A) Trim Wheels

An early problem encountered was that the trim wheels when engaging generated considerable noise.  After checking through the system, it was discovered that the two-speed rotation of the trim wheels were causing the two nuts that hold each of the trim wheels in place to become loose.  This in turn caused the trim wheels to wobble  slightly generating undue noise.  

Solution:

Tighten the two nuts at the end of the rod that holds the two trim wheels in place.

(B) Flaps 5 Not Engaging

The problem with the flaps 5 micro-button has been discussed in an earlier post.  To summarize, when you moved the flaps lever to flaps 5 the correct flaps were not selected on the aircraft or registered on the PoKeys 55 interface card.  Several hours were spent checking connections, micro-buttons, wiring and the custom VGA cables that connect the flaps section of the quadrant to the Interface Master Module (IMM); the problem could not be discovered.  

Solution:

One of the two Belkin powered hubs located within the IMM had been replaced with another powered unit.  It appears the problem was that the replacement hub had too low a voltage, as a replacement with a higher voltage solved the problem.

(C) Throttle Thrust Levers Not Synchronizing (A/T on)

The two thrust levers of the quadrant did not synchronize when the Auto Throttle (A/T) was engaged; one lever would always be ahead or behind of the other.  At other times they would split apart (do the splits) when A/T was engaged.  

Solution:

The problem was easily solved by altering the tension on the slip clutch nut.  When the nut was  tightened, both levers moved together as one unit.  The secret was finding the appropriate torque.

(D) Throttle Thrust Levers Difficult To Move in Manual Mode (A/T Off)

The ability to move the thrust levers in manual mode (Auto Throttle turned off) was not fluid and the levers occasionally snagged or were sticky when trying to move them.  

This is caused by the fan belt not moving smoothly through the groove of the pulley wheel.   The Auto Throttle when engaged overrides any stickness due to the power and torque of the Auto Throttle motor.

Solution:

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot you can do to rectify this issue as it’s a by-product of using a mechanical system in which the fan belt is central to the consistent operation of the unit.  

LEFT: The fan belt is barely visible linking the pulley of the motor to the main pulley inside the quadrant.

The conundrum is that if you tighten the fan belt too much you will be unable to manually move the thrust levers as they will be exceptionally stiff and difficult to move (as you are pushing against the tension of the fan belt); however, if you loosen the fan belt too much, although the levers will move fluidly by hand, the fan belt may not have enough tension to move the levers when Auto throttle is engaged.  It’s a matter of compromise; selecting an appropriate in-between tension to allow acceptable manual and Auto Throttle operation.

A more reliable method is to use a small gearbox, a simple slip clutch and a coupler to connect to the spur gear.  Another option is to use an electrical system.

Further thought needs to be done in this area before a decision is made to replace the fan belt system.  If a new system is incorporated, the change-out will be documented in a future post.

Conclusion

This brings us to the end of the throttle conversion.  The following links will take you to other posts regarding the conversion.  

B737 TQ - General Overview
B737 TQ - Speedbrake Conversion and Use
B737 TQ - Flaps UP to 40; Conversion and Use
B737 TQ - Trim Wheels and Trim Indicator Tabs
B737 TQ - Parking Brake Mechanism

Despite some of the shortcomings to this conversion, in particular the mechanical fan belt system, the throttle unit shows a marked improvement on the earlier 300 series conversion.

Technology and innovation rarely stand still and there is little doubt other ways will evolve to achieve similar results with greater efficiency.

Acronyms and Glossary 

AFDS - Autopilot Flight Director system
A/T – Auto Throttle
CMD A/B - Autopilot on/off for system A or system B
Flight Avionics Software - Sim Avionics, ProSim737 or similar
FMC - Flight Management Computer
MCP - Main Control Panel
QAMP – Quick Access Mounting Plate
Throttle Arc – The arc of the thrust levers from the end of the blocks to fully forward.  The term refers to the curved piece of aluminum that the throttle levers are moved along
TO/GA - Takeoff Go-around switch
%N1 -  Very simply explained, %N1 is throttle demand and as N1 (and N2) spin at absurdly high speeds, it is easier to simply reference a percentage and display that to the crew. It's much easier for our brains to interpret a value on a scale of 0-100% rather than tens of thousands of RPM 

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